Beginner’s Mind in Cold Water

Years ago a friend recommended a book, one called “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”, by Shunryu Suzuki. The basic idea of the book is that there is something really special about the mental state of being a beginner. The author is quoted as having said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

This is what comes to mind as I have been exploring the path of cold water swimming. I have very little idea what to expect from myself, leaving me in a state of wondering and curiosity, with many possibilities ahead. As a beginner, doing it all for the first time, I’m in a unique phase of experience. Every swim is a new discovery, as the temperature of my local lake drops lower and lower. What will happen if I go at this temperature, I wonder at each start. What will happen if I stay in just a little longer, I think at the finish. What sort of new sensations will I experience under these new conditions? Will I experience something I haven’t before? I know from the past that you only get this phase of beginner-ing once per hobby and I am thoroughly savoring it this time around.

This particular hobby seems especially fertile for the emergence of a “beginners mind”, as part of the skill set seems to be taking an almost meditative-like interest in your body’s sensations and signals, learning to observe them carefully but also with a certain degree of equanimity, which is not the body’s natural fight or flight reaction to the danger of cold. The scenery is beautiful and unique. You are exposed to the elements, transporting your psyche back into its primal nature. The ego is kind of irrelevant, possibly mostly because I’m a beginner, but the nature of the sport makes it even more so. There is deliciously nothing to prove, only survival, only facing fear, only getting to know yourself a little better.

Today I swam a personal best, something I thought I’d never be able to say about swimming again, since all my fastest times were under the age of eighteen. Today my time was forty-four minutes at fifty-one degrees (water), thirty-eight degrees (air). Now the goal of the sport is longer, not faster. Here I am at the start of the swim today. (All photo credits in this post go to Dan).

I swam what I think of as, “the course” at Lake Billy Chinook, a reservoir at the confluence of three rivers here in Central Oregon. I swim on the Crooked River arm this time of year, because it is the closest and, I suspect, the warmest. The river has carved away the canyon to create colossal cliffs that loom in the background, a foreboding backdrop for a swim. The course is around some buoys labeled, “swim area, no boats”, which are strung together with an actual lane line. Today, I swam between the lane line and a floating dock, where Dan paced along with me, checking in with me every five minutes or so.

Here I am backstroking the first few minutes of today’s swim.

The first half lap is always hard. I start off waist deep for a couple minutes, then comes backstroke for a few minutes. I don’t really mind that at all–it’s just once it comes time for me to put my face in. That is a bit brutal for a few strokes, and then maybe a few more. Then suddenly, I feel fine, my skin has reached the temperature of the lake and I feel warm in my core. Today, I felt great. The air temperature was 38F, but it was sunny and beautiful. Dan was there, walking along the floating dock. I swam the first lap and felt good and acclimated. By the start of the second lap, I was feeling euphoric. I remember thinking how surreal the whole thing is, swimming out here in November, when nighttime temperatures have been in the teens for the past week. Also odd to feel simultaneously warm and frozen at the same time. My stroke felt strong, smooth and powerful. I swam along, a feeling of genuine pride glowing in my core and making me feel warm and happy. “I love being a beginner,” I remember thinking, cheerfully.

I focused on keeping my mouth closed underwater to keep the cold out, but I haven’t mastered this habit yet. Periodically I’d notice a mild stinging sensation on the tip of my tongue. I tricked myself into thinking it was some nasty chemical in the water, burning my tongue, and then had to un-trick myself into thinking it was just the cold. The water was clear and I could see to the bottom. I thought about what it would be like if this were the ocean and sharks were a possibility. I am way jumpier in colder water.

On lap three, the same mild stinging feeling crept into the palm of my left hand, like pressing your palm onto the bristles of a hair brush. During my checks with Dan, I was still showing great dexterity, however, so I knew I was ok. At the midway point check-in of lap three, for some reason I drank a huge gulp of water. Like, HUGE. I have no idea why. I was stopped, vertically treading water, saying something to him. The water was glassy, there were no boats and the next thing I knew I had swallowed, then sucked in, an absurd amount of lake water. I coughed a bunch then reassured Dan I was ok. It did freak me out a little and got the adrenaline up. It was just so random.

Going into lap four, I was just beginning to feel the urge to shiver, but not shivering. Dan later told me my stroke count slowed down at this point. The palm of my left hand burned, my feet were cold but not totally numb. Dexterity was still great, no speech slurring. I signaled to Dan that this would be my last lap, and decided to skip the first half of it and just stay next to the floating dock. When I reached the midway point, I gave Dan a thumbs up and headed back. I remember it getting a lot harder on the second half of the way back (last quarter of lap four). The cold feeling had spread into my upper arms and my muscles felt sluggish. I wasn’t shivering but I also felt like being done. I wasn’t looking forward to the “after-drop” and the post swim shivering. I briefly had the thought that I could put off the shivering if I just swam a little longer, but knew that didn’t make any kind of sense.

I got out and felt great at first. Not much shivering, and Dan wrapped a towel around me. I had just finished getting my warm clothes on when the shivers really set in. But they weren’t any worse than usual, adding to my confidence that I’ll be ok doing this, at least for a little longer into the winter. I’ll do it again next week, have another adventure and learn something new.

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Waldo With Friends

Time for confessions of a procrastinator: this swim took place weeks ago! It’s still on my mind just because of how much fun it was and I have been meaning to write about it, but… work happened. But…other adventures happened. But… life happened? Anyhow consider it a testament to how much I enjoyed this swim that I think I need to make an entry about it well after my self-imposed deadline. Also, the photos/video Todd and Shannon took came out really well and I like looking at them :).

So, what’s better than a swim in the blue waters of Waldo Lake?

A swim with friends in the waters of Waldo Lake! Add an underwater go-pro video camera and you’ve got a regular party. At least that’s what I learned several weekends ago, when I met up with Shannon and Todd from Southern Oregon for a dip in my favorite Oregon swimming spot.

I arrived early and took the lake temperature at a variety of locations. My thermometer read 55.5 F at the dock of the shallow inlet for the day of use area, 57 at the shore closer to the mouth of the inlet and 57 at the shore of the point just north of Shadow Bay campground. The deeper the water, the warmer at this time of year, so we are just gonna say the temp was 55-58 and leave it at that. Since my confidence is still a little low for these temperatures, the others kindly accommodated my request to swim out 30 minutes and the back to the dock, so we would be close to shore if necessary. The thirty minutes was plenty to get is away from the shallow water and into the blue for some good photos and videos.

Shannon had an especially good reason to shoot video–she is launching an adventure swimming and coaching company in Southern Oregon! You can check it out at: http://www.intrepidwater.com/.

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Here she is (above) during the swim. If you need some coaching, stroke technique lessons or want to plan an adventure in open water, she’s the one to talk to–very friendly and encouraging as well.

So we stroked steadily along and got into the deeper water. Then it was playtime. Shannon and Todd took turns filming while we swam past the camera. Waldo is a great place for this kind of thing because the water is so clear. As I swam along, I enjoyed being able to see the others, visible under water even from a long way off. Celeste, Todd’s partner was in the kayak. I chuckled when I saw that she had rigged up an umbrella over her in the kayak to keep off the rain that had started to fall. At the thirty minute mark, we headed back. And maybe it was a good thing too–the rain had become a cloud over the lake and that cloud was blocking our view. We were all very glad Celeste was there, as you almost could not see the point where the water flows into the day use inlet where we had started. It was a reminder that just because you aren’t swimming alone doesn’t mean you won’t get lost and doesn’t mean you are safe. Always turn around and look back where you are coming from when you are headed out, so that things will look familiar when you are heading back from the other direction.

As we swam back, I watched Shannon and Todd film each other and me with the go-pro. It was fun and lighthearted. I almost forgot that the water was cold because I was giggling a lot. I tried to pretend we were in the tropics–playing around in the warm ocean. Here I am during the “photo shoot” part of the swim:

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When we got to the inlet, it was colder than out in “the blue”. We treaded water while playing around more and that was when I started to shiver a bit. When my teeth started chattering, I decided it was time to get out. As I swam through the shallow water closest to the dock, the several-degree-colder water hit me hard. I was already cold and that water felt so much colder! It definitely got me sprinting, kicking hard to reach the dock sooner.

Celeste helped me get out and I got into my dry clothes. Shannon and Todd stayed in awhile longer and then joined us. We sipped hot drinks and just about laughed our butts off while sharing swimming stories and future fantasies. Cold water euphoria is even more fun with friends around. So glad we got to do this one!!

What Your Body Can Do For You: Mosier to Hood River

The Columbia is a big river, separating Oregon from Washington. Today we were swimming downstream from the small town of Mosier to the not-as-small town of Hood River. Two years ago we did the same route upriver. Today there was a nice current, so the approximately 5 mile swim went by much faster.

The main highlights for me were the social aspects of the swim. I got to meet some people I recognized from Oregon Wild Swimming, but hadn’t met in person. The after-swim coffee outing was awesome, but let’s come back to that.

All photo credits to Louise–kayak escort and photo taker extraordinaire

Here we are at the start, eager and happy to set off for Hood River, powered exclusively by our own bodies.

The water during the swim didn’t feel cold. It was 65F according to Mark and it felt refreshing, causing me to think that my cold water training might be working. It occurred to me toward the end that if I had been wearing my wetsuit, I may have needed to take it off to avoid overheating. I wore it at this time two years ago in that river, so I guess I’ve made some progress.

Also, during the swim, Dan and I also went off course, going the wrong way around Chicken Charlie Island. Not really a “highlight” per se, but it was something that happened. That was fine, but we got caught in an eddy on the west end of the island and had to swim north toward the middle of the river, across the current, to hook up with the rest of the group.

Here are a couple of familiar Oregon swimming faces: Mark, our swim coordinator, and Robin. You also get a sense of the landscape from this photo.

After that it was smooth sailing, or I guess I should say smooth swimming. The current consisted of both the river flow and the wind blowing white caps from east to west, luckily in the same direction we were traveling. The whole thing went by so fast–just an hour and forty-five minutes and we were out and drying off, putting on our warm clothes.

After retrieving the cars we had left in Mosier at the start (logistics of a one-way swim), we headed to the local coffee shop. I was especially excited because I got to ask just about every question I could think of to Margot about acclimating to cold water. One thing she said that really stood out to me was that after doing multiple swims under 40 degrees (F), she now feels confident in being able to hop in any body of water she might happen to see while driving around adventuring, even if it’s just for a short swim. What an amazing thing to be able to trust your body to do, I thought. It got me thinking about swimming, life, different ways to think about goals and my favorite topic–adventures versus competition. What Margot said captured, in a nutshell, what I care most about these days when it comes to swimming and athletics in general.

As I write this, I recall something a coach of mine, Susan Wolfe, said to me in college. “Are you happy with what your body can do for you?” She asked. “No.” I replied, stubbornly. She had asked in a way (and in a context of conversation) where I was supposed to answer “yes”. But I wasn’t happy with myself or “what my body could do for me”, so I couldn’t say yes. Back then, everything was about gaining speed. Everything, including what I ate down to the last calorie, the last yard, the last positive thought. The idea was that if you could do everything just right, your body would be able to achieve great things, take you places like finals at NCAAs, the Olympic Trials, maybe even the actual Olympics.

Wait a minute though–would you rather (and really think about it) have your body take you to the Olympics where people are nervously and excitedly and competitively vying to see who can outdo one another by hundredths of a second, or be able to jump in any body of water you see at any time while traveling and know with confidence your body can take you there safely? What about if your body could take you from England to France? Or across Lake Tahoe, watching the sunrise as you stroke your way toward the horizon?

The idea of achieving a level of acclimitization where my body can be a vessel to take me on breathtaking adventures struck me as especially beautiful and inspirational. If I could get there, then I most certainly would answer yes, I am happy with what my body can do for me. Great swimming with everyone today!

Cold One

The transition to cold water swimming comes early out here in the high desert and the Cascades. With night time air temperatures dipping below freezing at higher elevations, the lakes are cooling off quickly, particularly the more shallow ones. All my favorite lakes are now under 60F/15C. Since our local pool was closed for maintenance the past two weeks, I’ve been hitting Elk Lake twice a week before work, along with weekend excursions to Big Lake and Paulina Lake. I hope to grow my mental and physical skills with cold water swimming. Historically, I haven’t been one to enjoy cold, but that’s really changed this year. It’s really fun to be a beginner at this aspect of swimming and see improvements and experience come so quickly.

Plus, the crowds are gone. I’d love some company, but the crowds are gone! I’ve had the lake all to myself, with the exception of yesterday’s Big Lake swim, where I encountered a pair of gawking kayakers. The weekday mornings at Elk have been the best.

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Elk Lake on a weekday morning after labor day. See–no crowds.

Anyhow… Having done a solo swim in Big Lake yesterday, I wanted to go again today. I had hoped the weather would be clear and Dan could take some good pictures of Mt. Washington and Three Fingered Jack from the middle of the lake. I also figured I could swim longer since Dan would be there. I was wrong on all accounts. Although the weather was clear most of the day in Redmond, it got cloudy and rainy as we drove up into The Cascades. Who would’ve thought the weather could be so different just 45 minutes from our house? I guess I should know better by now.

In the wind and drizzle, the temperature in the parking lot was 44 degrees. I figured the lake might be cooler, but I didn’t figure on how much. Here is Dan, getting our home-made, plywood pirogue, the “Water Melon” ready for voyage.

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I strolled confidently into the water, expecting yesterday’s 58 degree water (maybe 57 in the middle). Nope. It quickly became pretty clear that was not at all what was happening. My skin shrieked at me in protest as burning pins and needles hit me. I told Dan I needed him to get a temperature reading right away. In the meantime I swam backstroke, keeping my gasping face out of the water. A few minutes later, the verdict: 55.5 degrees.

I had been staying in for an hour and a half in 60 degree water all week without a problem, but five degrees is a big difference in the water. I had done mid 50s temperatures in the bath tub last winter, but it had been awhile. I remembered that first is the burning, tingling sensation and then your skin gets numb and all is well. Of course, fifty-five degrees is a new personal record for me to date outside of the bath tub and it felt weird swimming with numb skin for the first time.

I calmed down within 5-10 minutes and we swam and paddled for awhile, my skin adjusting to the temperature and my brain becoming increasingly alert and focused. Everything around me just seemed sharper and I got a rush of euphoria, likely the reason so many people get addicted to cold water swimming.

After awhile, I picked my head up and looked over at Dan. “Wrong boat!” he yelled, laughing as he dug his paddle into the water, trying to control the Water Melon. The water was actually pretty choppy, producing small but rough white caps. The Water Melon is really just intended for flat, calm days.

“How long”? I yelled.

“Sixteen minutes”.

“Let’s go back to the ramp and swim there,” I called. I felt fine, but I didn’t know how long it would last. Closer to the ramp I could challenge myself with less risk of something going wrong fast. Plus, I was remembering gluing the boat together in Dan’s garage a couple summers ago and having visions of the rough water tearing the boat apart and me having to swim Dan to safety.

The highlight of the swim was the 20 minute coffee break. It was really windy/choppy with white cap wavelets all around and Dan was fighting to control the Water Melon. After digging a paddle into the water to stop the boat, he tossed me the hydroflask, connected to the boat by a carabiner and length of paracord. I floated on my back, feet protruding above the water, sipping my coffee from the bottle as if I were sitting in a lawn chair recliner. For that moment, I wasn’t cold at all–the hot coffee trickling down into my core. I looked around with a surge of delight as I surveyed my situation. I was sitting in very cold water, but not feeling cold, the rich and cozy taste of hot coffee in my mouth, exposed to the elements, and really feeling alive. Dan was there and we were enjoying this together, despite us both later admitting the absurdity of it all. Then it was time to swim again. Dropping the hydroflask in the lake for Dan to reel in, onward I went through the chilling, gray waters.

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As we headed back to the boat ramp, I swam on the right side of the boat. The chop was coming at me head on but slightly more from my left side. With Dan on my right, I could breath exclusively on that side and keep a close eye on the boat. I watched as he made a right turn, signaled to me to follow and after a few minutes, another right turn. We must have passed the dock already and be heading back around to it, I thought. Hmm, that was fast, I thought.

I swam along, remembering to glance up around me every once and awhile and appreciate the rawness of the elements. Most of the lake was enveloped in the fog of the steam rising off the cold water into the even colder air. A light, Cascade drizzle fell from the sky, making Dan look wet and cold sitting in the Water Melon. The water was a mess of gray chop and white caps. It’s a small lake but in the wind, rain and fog that was entirely too easy to forget. Oddly I could still clearly see the bottom and various lost items sunk into the sand 10, 20 or maybe even 30 feet below. Abandoned beer cans looked like miniature toy beer cans from the height at which I swam above them. I wondered what kind of children’s toy set would include miniature beer cans. We hit a spot of particularly cold water, jarring me out of my thoughts. My arms felt heavy and cold and I started to wonder what it would be like if they just quit working. Like if they just wouldn’t move anymore, what would I do? Instinctively, I picked my head up and looked around, my eyes searching for the boat ramp. Where was it? Where were we?

“I’m getting colder,” I yelled to Dan. “Take me to the dock!”

“That’s where we are going,” he shouted back at me. “It’s over there!” I looked around. I suddenly realized I had no idea where we were. The direction he was pointing was the opposite direction from where I had imagined the boat ramp to be. I looked back where we had just come from, where I thought it should be. There was only the forested bank there, and the fog, and the rain.

“It’s around that point,” he motioned. I started swimming again. Impossible, I thought. Around that point is back toward the far end of the lake. But I knew he must be right. He had been navigating the whole time. I’d been following along and allowed myself to stop paying attention. If I’d been on my own I’d have had no idea how to get back. Then again, I’d never have allowed myself to lose track if I’d have been alone. I imagined myself lost in the lake by myself, swim-wandering in circles trying to find the ramp. My arms felt cold. I picked up my speed a little and reminded myself that my core was still warm.

Finally we made it around the point and my orientation snapped back into place. I could see the ramp. I stopped to talk to Dan and felt fine again. I knew exactly where we were. I told him we should stay near the ramp but keep swimming awhile longer. Seeing the ramp there made me feel a lot warmer. I think the sensations I was feeling were just new sensations for me, but since I’m not used to them yet, it was hard to tell if they were red flags or not. In reality, my core still felt really warm and not a bit shivery like on some of my longer swims in cool (not cold) water. I’m learning that it’s important for me to push each swim just a bit further, but not overdo it. Sensations that used to make me worried and nervous now seem totally normal and commonplace. I am hoping the same will happen with these new sensations I am discovering in the mid-fifties.

When I did get out I didn’t start my shivers for awhile–they normally start soon after I get out. I assume this is because I only stay in for 33 minutes, whereas I am usually shooting for an hour and half or much longer. I don’t think my core really had a chance to cool off while I was in the water. My blood had flowed away from my skin, away from the cold water and into my core, to keep all my organs warm. Once I got out and started to warm my skin, my blood started circulating back into my cold, cold skin. This process cooled my blood, which then flowed back to my core, finally making my core temperature drop. This effect is known as “the after-drop” and can be dangerous if you warm your skin up too quickly.

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It also explains why I started to shiver as I sat in the truck with Dan, covered in warm clothes and blankets, my dexterity at an all time low. I wasn’t able to open the clasp on my dry bag and it took a few tries to hit the photo button to take the above shivering selfie. I sipped hot broth, shivered and laughed with Dan. Pretty quickly everything went back to normal again and we went off on our next adventure.

Waldo Lake: Introducing The 3 Islands Route–22K in one of Oregon’s finest lakes.

It was another monotonous practice in what open water swimmers call, “the concrete box” (aka swimming pool) last winter. I was daydreaming about lake bagging adventures I could do when summer finally came around again. Of course I had to plan something on Waldo Lake, the sapphire, crown-jewel of Oregon lakes (excluding Crater maybe, which also boasts absurdly blue water).

What would I do? A single crossing? A double crossing? No, I know what I’ll do, I thought as I stared at the black line at the bottom of the swimming pool. I’ll start at the southern parking lot, swim to the island near the north campground, swim southeast around Rhododendron Island, then south to the island at the southern-most point, and then north back to the parking lot. This will be an epic and fun swim, I smiled to myself. Then back I went to pacing away some hundreds or two hundreds or three hundreds or whatever it was that day.

Fast forward about six months to today, the day for me to finally try out the route I had created in my pool-steeped fantasies. Since neither Dan nor I, nor anyone else I talked to knew of anyone who had swum this route before, we did a scouting trip a few weeks ago to make sure we knew how to find the three islands and our parking spot before we tried to do them all in one day. It’s a good thing we did, because we actually got lost, believe it or not, but that’s another story. You can read about it here. I’ve decided to write this entry in the form of a “Step By Step How To” guide in case any of you (or anyone you love) wants to swim this same, totally-awesome-epic-scenic-mindblowing route.

Step 1: Admit to yourself that you want to do this swim. Sometimes just admitting it is the first step.

Step 2: Get in shape. It’s a long journey–took me 6.5 hours and measured 22k on my gps watch. While you’re at it, get used to semi-cold water. The temp was 66 degrees which was balmy the first couple hours but grew rather cold as I grew rather fatigued. Waldo is typically only over 60 degrees during the month of August, give or take a few weeks, so come in August or get used to swimming in full-on-cold water. Also–consider the time of day you want to start the swim. Waldo usually gets choppy after noon, so if you want smoother water, start as early in the morning as possible. I was actually looking for a choppy, windy swim for me and Dan to practice on in case we try for SCAR next spring. I got one. It was a bumpy ride, to say the least. Photos never do it justice but you get a bit of an idea from this one.

Step 3: Get yourself a totally-awesome-extremely-helpful-positive-badass kayak escort person to tote along your nourishment and handle navigation for the adventure.

Step 4: Put a full set of warm clothes, shoes you can walk in (I brought tevas) and a towel in a dry bag along with an emergency blanket. This route is designed to put you swimming near the trail that goes all the way around the lake, so if you need to bail out, you can swim to shore, get your wet suit off, get dressed and walk back to your motor vehicle. The trail is further from the lake on the first stretch but closer to the lake in the second half, to be there for you when you may be most likely to need it. Don’t forget to pack lots of water/sports drink/other nourishment. It’s a long journey.

Step 5: Park near the shadow bay campground at the boat ramp that is south of the campground. Turn right off of highway 58, turn left where it says to for shadow bay campground. Veer left again, ignoring the sign pointing right for shadow bay campground. Go left when you see the outhouses and park there (to the west of the outhouses). You will need either a forest pass or five bucks. Here I am starting the swim from the boat ramp.

Step 6: Do what you normally do (sunscreen etc) and start swimming. (Tell your kayaker that they are awesome).

Step 7: Your awesome kayaker will mostly be doing this, because you’ll have told them ahead of time where to go or referred them to this entry, but basically you’re going to head north, staying on the east side of the lake, keeping the shore a consistent distance from where you are swimming, except when the shore drifts eastward forming a bay or inlet. When that happens, just head directly for the next point, as that will prevent extra swimming (of course there’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you’re looking for).

Step 8: Eventually you will arrive at the north end of the lake at which point you will feel like you are heading somewhat west. Keep contouring around the northeast shore until you see an island to the north. Today there were tons of other kayaks congregating there, making it very easy to find. This is the north campground island. We call it that because it is right next to the boat ramp that serves the north campground. I swam counter clockwise around the island, but obviously you can go any old which way you want. Here I am (all photo credits Dan, by the way), swimming away from the north island.

Step 9: At this point you should be able to see the thinnest part of the lake up ahead to the far south, on the horizon. Dan calls this “the pinch point”. The “pinchers” show up as the darker portions of land in this picture:

Head toward the western point of “the pincher” (on the right side of the picture above), but keep in mind that Rhododendron Island is a little northwest of the western point of “the pincher” part of the lake. You really want to generally head for that skinny section of the lake so that you don’t venture too far west. However, as you get closer to the western point, swim a bit closer to the western shore until your kayaker can spot the island and lead you to and around it. Dan was fortunate enough to see a sailboat go behind the island so he knew he was on the right path.

Step 10: Next, you’re gonna head almost due south for the southernmost point island. If you didn’t bring a compass (you should bring a compass), site off of the valley between the two tallest peaks on the horizon. Eventually, you will see the little island and you can swim around it. It is the absolute southern most point of the island. I don’t have a photo of this for you because Dan’s phone died at Rhododendron Island. By the way, it is quite shallow around all three islands. Get your breaststroke or sculling abilities ready beforehand ;).

Step 11: Finally, you can head for your motor vehicle. STAY NEAR THE SHORE. This is where we got lost a few weeks ago during our scouting mission. The boat ramp lies in a little inlet and you cannot see it from the main part of the lake. During the scouting mission, we overshot the inlet, thinking we were just going to the point on its north end. If you stay near the southeastern shore you cannot miss it. Keep going into the inlet even though you don’t see the ramp. Don’t take anything that looks like a shortcut at this time. It’s only about 1.5k from the southernmost island to the boat ramp.

Step 12: Profusely thank your kayaker. Get out and dry off quickly so you don’t get cold(er). Thank your kayaker again!

There you have it, folks, The Three Islands Route. You can do this!

Added 8/13/18: Here is a map of my route. The watch was on my kayaker’s arm, so this is actually the kayak’s route. However, we were very close together most of the time, with the exception of 2 spots where he got out to use “the restroom” and repack the kayak (while I swam on and he caught up).Waldo 3 islands .png

Through the Gates of the Mountains

Today’s swim wasn’t in a lake and it wasn’t in Oregon, but it was so spectacular I’m going to write about it for Oregon Lake Bagging anyhow. Just 15 miles north of Helena, MT is about as majestic of a place as you’re gonna find to swim through. At “The Gates of the Mountains”, the Missouri River snakes through limestone cliffs, cutting the mountains into jigsaw pieces. Because of the sharp hairpin turns, the rock in front of you sometimes appears as a headwall. However, as you approach each narrow opening between rocks, an optical illusion creates the effect of the rock sliding open like a gate. Having driven by boat launch area with Dan before and having researched it this morning, I simply couldn’t pass it up.

We paid five bucks to put the kayak in at the marina and we were on our way. The water was about ten degrees colder than Canyon Ferry Lake (fed by the same river) but almost as algae-ridden. I did a bit of gasping and felt the gentle pain of an “ice cream headache” surround my face. My skin got cold and numb. That all only lasted a short while until I got pretty relaxed and began to enjoy the scenery. Ahead I could see where “the gates” began. It looked like this:

I wondered if I would round that bend where the trees are (near the middle of picture) and see limestone cliffs on either side of me. I got excited and picked my head up to look, the gates slowly sliding open with every stroke.

When we finally reached the opening, it was just as I had hoped. The rock face loomed over me on both sides, making me feel small and in awe. The water was noticeably colder here, but I didn’t care. Inspired by the magnificence, I swam on. We passed rock dotted by holes and caves, the water making a gurgling sound as it crashed into them. I wondered what caused those holes. Was it water trickling down? Erosion eating away at some softer rock?

Occasionally we were passed by the tour boats speeding up the canyon. On one boat the passengers cheered me on, not sure exactly why, but maybe because no one else was swimming. At some point, around an hour, I began to get colder again. I still didn’t really care–my skin was cold but I convinced myself that my body wasn’t. It probably wasn’t, I told myself. Was it? Was I actually cold? I didn’t know if the water was cold because I hadn’t taken its temperature, my water thermometer tucked away in my swim bag at home. My skin is cold, but I am not, I concluded. This thinking went on as we rounded the next bend, resulting in more spectacular scenery. Here I am, just as the next “gate” was opening before me.

After going around the rock picture above, I hit some very shallow water and stood up, the water level at my thighs. It was so warm out. The air felt amazing. “Do you want to turn back?” Dan asked. We had gone 4 kilometers. I had told him we needed to turn around no later than 5 kilometers. I wasn’t cold anymore. The air was 90 degrees, a good thirty degrees warmer than the water. We briefly discussed continuing another kilometer, allowing ourselves to be lured by the breathtaking scenery. But my breath was taken by the cold water instead as I slid back in and immediately started shivering. “You should get swimming hard and we should head back,” Dan said. He is forever looking out for me and I appreciate it. Back we went. After about ten minutes the shivering stopped, typical for me and I was ok again. I alternated backstroke, freestyle and breastroke to get a variety of viewing angles in appreciation of the scenery, which wasn’t any less spectacular the second time around.

At around two hours my feet went numb and tingly and I was glad we had headed back. My feet haven’t gotten that numb before, but I wasn’t too worried, knowing it is common for a lot of people who do colder water swimming. I also knew I could climb on the bow of the kayak as needed, because I had already experimented with that earlier. Nevertheless, my body felt the urgency of an unacclimated swimmer and I concluded that it was mostly mental–the water was cold, but I actually wasn’t. Of course, maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t. I went around and around in my head while I admired the views. The last kilometer or so is where the river empties out into a kind of lake. It gets a lot wider there anyhow and it was a degree or two warmer for sure. The scenery part was over so I did 150 strokes free and 10 strokes breastroke. My right hip flexor muscle was really bothering me at that point. My feet thawed out. The water was glassy. I felt fine. Finally, we reached the dock and I got out without so much as a shiver. Maybe it would be good to come back here with more of a plan and go for longer, I thought. I looked behind me, across the lake at the limestone cliffs. The gates were closed again, their wonders enclosed and waiting for the next visit.

Swimming to Cemetery Island

Perhaps the only thing more intriguing than visiting a ghost town is swimming over one. There aren’t too many places where you can do that, but Canyon Ferry Lake, near Helena, Montana is one of them. A reservoir created by a dam in the Missouri River, this lake runs 25 miles south to north. When the Canyon Ferry Dam was built in 1954, the river swallowed the town of Canyon Ferry, leaving it forever submerged. The only part of town that remains above water and dry as a bone is the old cemetery on what once was a steep hill, now called Cemetery Island. Jumping off the kayak into the water, Dan and I headed out to explore the island and its cemetery, just south of the north end of the lake.

Here we are- headed for the island.

A couple kilometers away, we made quick progress toward it despite the substantial choppiness of the water. If The Red River of the North was the color of chocolate milk, Canyon Ferry Lake closely resembled a rather chunky egg drop soup. This lake took dissolved solids to a whole new level. I just kept my mouth shut and swam. I wanted to go see the cemetery and swim over the town below.

We arrived at a beach on the northeast shore of the island. The air was windy but the water had been warm–low 70s is my guess, so I quickly dried as we hiked up away from the beach and found the cemetery on the top of the hill.

As we entered the cemetery, our chatter subsided into a respectful silence. Wrought iron poles framed grave sites dating back to late 1800s and early 1900s, some headstones eerily cracked with wear. A recent site marked a grave from the year 2000, his body laid to rest near family members from over a century before. I looked out over the water beyond and remarked to Dan that this wouldn’t be a bad place for your bones to find eternal rest.

After a brief exploration of the rest of the island, we were ready to complete our circumnavigation, which would take us over the town underneath the lake. Dan led the way south and then west, toward the channel between the west shore of the lake and the island, over the original path of the river. A ferry would transport goods back and forth across the river that carved this canyon–leading to the town being called, “Canyon Ferry”.

I swam close to shore, partly to avoid the jet skis and power boats roaring through the narrow channel, but also because I knew that was where the town lay submerged. I wanted to swim directly over where people had once lived their lives–where people had been born, had their first day of school, their first kiss and the inevitable first heartbreak–where folks had navigated the successes and failures of life. I imagined them looking up into the sky a hundred years ago, maybe at a bird flying where I now swam. It was a funny sensation–In a way, I too was flying over the town, my body supported by water the same way a birds wings are supported by air.

Here I am swimming by Cemetary Island on my right, the town over 100 feet below me, To my right, I passed the top of what was once a tall cliff, now only the very top protruding from the choppy water. I imagined what it would have been like to stand at the bottom of the canyon, over a hundred feet below where I swam, looking up at the cemetery on the hill.

Here are a couple photos of photos I took at the visitor center, showing life in the town of Canyon Ferry before the new dam was constructed and the town submerged. Here’s the original dam, constructed in 1898.

And some houses…I would like to say that I heard whispering voices rising from the depths, saw wispy plumes of something not quite there or felt an inexplicable chill in the warm water, but I did not. The only sounds were the all-to-ordinary mosquito-like buzz of power boats underwater and the water remained a balmy 70-something degrees.

After completing the circumnavigation, we headed north, back across the lake. As amazing as this trip was, I was happy to climb out of the green, murky water, rinse my mouth out and hop in the shower back at the marina. I miss my clear-water Oregon mountain lakes!

Night Swim

After a rushed day of packing for a weekend of camping at the lake, work and competing in a lake race, it was finally time for the much awaited night swim. I don’t organize a lot of group events, so I was a little on edge for reasons that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. My mind wandered back to earlier this summer, and a conversation I had with Hardy, a fellow Central Oregon swimmer. “I want to do a night swim under a full moon sometime this summer,” he said. I pulled out my phone and learned that the next full moon would occur during the annual Cascade Lakes Swim Series, hosted by our team, at Elk Lake. It would be convenient, because other friends of ours from around the state would already be camping at the lake, participating in the races. We figured we would invite them and see what happened.

The swim series races had begun earlier that evening with the 3k. Hardy’s restaurant had catered the event, providing mountains of delicious fried wings, so he hadn’t been able to race. But the rest of us had, and we were tired but not yet satisfied, the anticipation of the moonlit swim hanging in the back of our minds. 

Todd, Mike and I drove from our campground over to the marina, where we had agreed to meet the other night swimmers. Dan opted to paddle his kayak across the lake, rather than haul it by truck over land.

I was relieved to find that the other night swimmers were already there when we arrived at the marina. The moon had risen and was shining bright in the eastern sky. A bit below it, and slightly south, hung Mars—brighter and redder than usual, the astrological warrior playing guardian to the moon’s shining beauty. The night was calm and clear, the air still warm from the hot summer day, but quickly cooling under the evening sky. Looking over the lake, the afternoon’s choppy waters had settled into a placid blanket of glass, stretching into the night. The horizon and the night sky blended together, almost indistinguishable in the darkness.

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Here we are from a distance, later in the swim. Photo Credit: Jen Allender

I ran around saying hello to everyone, checking out everyone’s lights and night swimming accoutrements. Suddenly, everyone seemed more ready than me. I was still fully dressed as the night swimmers began heading toward the water. My previous relief quickly gave way to a vague anxiety that I’d be left behind in the parking lot. “We won’t leave you behind,” said Sue. She stood by me while I threw off my clothes and snatched up my cap and goggles, fiddling with my lighting with shaky hands. She was right, of course. Before I knew it, we were sliding into the black, silky waters, my face ducking below the surface to see nothing at all. Then the anxiety and anticipation were gone. We were all stroking together, the lights we had stowed inside our safety buoys glowing like lanterns.

Pat and Mike T. (on paddle board) had traveled North from Mike T’s house to meet us at the marina. They arrived just as we spotted the green and red lights of Dan’s kayak in the distance. The group of us headed toward Dan and then off toward the moon, drawn to it like moths to a flame.

“It’s so easy to swim straight,” Sue said into the night. “The moon makes a lane-line you can follow”. She was right. As we continued to swim, the moonlight fell on the water, illuminating a silver path I could swim through. It was magical, all of us together, a celebration of sorts, a connection unspoken among friends. I turned over to swim backstroke and look around me. I counted five swimmers with lantern-like buoys. Mike-the-swimmer didn’t have a light so we stopped at I attached my extra, blinking, red LED to his goggles. Hardy didn’t have a buoy, but had attached red and blue glow sticks to his ankles. They created streaks of red and blue light underwater as he kicked. His wife, Lisa, was accompanying us in her kayak, decorated beautifully with white and blue lights. Sue’s teenage daughter, Grace, stroked peacefully and quietly along in her kayak. Everyone seemed to be having a good time.

Here you can see the lights of Lisa’s kayak (bottom right), several someones with glowing buoys, and (I believe) Mike T. on paddle board.

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Photo credit: Jen Allender

Mike T. led us to his house, where he and Pat were staying. There, we met Mike’s other guests, who greeted us enthusiastically. Pat’s brother’s wife, Jen, took some great photos of us using a camera on a tripod. We tried to stay as still as we could, so the nighttime photo would come out ok.

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Photo Credit: Jen Allender

Regretfully, I didn’t have the presence of mind to suggest a larger group photo with our paddlers. Like Mars guarding the moon, they silently looked over us while we swam, providing us with courage in the uncertainty of the dark. We couldn’t and wouldn’t have done it without them. Thanks you guys!

I started to get cold and suggested we swim back to the marina. Pat and Mike T. stayed, but the rest of us swam slowly back, savoring each stroke. I threw in as much backstroke as possible, eager to enjoy the view of the night sky. At last, it was time to get out. The air was chilly by then—the low would fall into the 30s that night and it was around 11pm when we got out. We all dried off as quickly as possible and stood around talking in the parking lot, laughing and telling stories. The rest of the weekend would bring some very competitive racing and better swimming for me than I’ve seen from myself in a long time. But in terms of value or meaning for me and what I’ll look back on and remember, none of that really compared to the beauty of the night swim and then camaraderie I felt with my fellow night swimmers.

John B. Waldo & Waldo Lake

A swim in Waldo Lake is about as good as it gets if you are a nature lover of any kind. With extremely low levels of dissolved particulars, the water here is crystal clear. It is kept that way, in part, by the ban on motor boats using internal combustion (gas powered) engines. It also partially surrounded by wilderness, with a history of protection by conservationist efforts dating back to the late 1800s. These efforts were led by none other than John B. Waldo. One of Oregon’s first political leaders and original outdoorsmen, Waldo is known for being one of five people who walked from Waldo Lake to Mount Shasta, along what is now the Pacific Crest Trail.
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While swimming in the lake this weekend, my eyes drinking in endless expanses of clear, yet bright blue water, I imagined what it must’ve been like for John Waldo when he first visited the place, undeveloped and untouched. Perhaps he stood at the edge and looked out over the vast water, mountain views edging along the horizon. He certainly must’ve gone in for at least a quick dip, the chilly water soothing muscles and bones tired from hiking through cascade underbrush. I imagine him thinking, “this is a really special place. We really should think about keeping it that way. I think my children’s children’s children will love it too”.
And he was right, there I was, 130 years later, skin full of goosebumps not entirely attributable to the chilly water. Peering into the rich Blue, I was eternally grateful for his forethought and long range planning. Swimming through Waldo is what I imagine it would be like to swim through a giant sapphire. And just so you can see for yourself, here is a picture of the water. Looking straight down, this is what you see most of the time.
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On Saturday we set off from the boat ramp at the day use parking lot just south of Shadow Bay Campground toward the south end of the lake. The water was 64 degrees and it felt fine, refreshing after the heat we’ve been having in town. We set off for Rhododendron Island, a place I’d been before with my swim group from Eugene. The rocky bottom gradually faded from view, replaced by an abyss of blue. The taste of the water was equally sublime–no Giardia here, no nothing really, just pure, cold, thirst-quenching water. As we crossed the narrowest part of the lake, headed for the small island on the west side, I admired the view of The Sisters and Broken Top mountains to the north on the horizon.
“What do you think?” I asked Dan when I popped my head up. It was his first visit to the lake. “This place is amazing! It’s so blue! I’ve seen a lot of blues, but this is really blue”. Later he would describe it as “Doritos bag blue” (I was eating Doritos after the swim), which isn’t really far off.
I put my head back down and swam on. I found myself mesmerized by refracted beams of light like underwater sunbeams, stretching into the blue below. They danced as I watched them, my arms stroking through the water, but my head staying down as I realized I was forgetting to breath. I’d pick my head up, breath for a few strokes and then allow myself the fall back into their hypnotic trance.
I had planned to swim around three hours, and had mapped out a rough course that would take us north and then west across the thinnest part of the lake and then around Rhododendron Island on the west side. The island is a small brown dot just north and west of the thin part of the lake on the map below. We would then contour the shoreline to the south, head all the way around the bay at the south end and then head back north to the truck. Here is the map, in case you want a visual aid.
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The trip to and around the island went smoothly with a lot of pausing to ooh and ahh about the beauty. I started to feel a bit cold after two hours, but it was more of a mental cold than anything else. The wind had picked up and it was slowing me down. My hands and feet felt fine and so did my core. I wondered what it’d be like to swim for 10-11 hours in this temperature. Would I get colder? Would I just get mentally tired of being cold?
I threw in some backstroke here and there and watched Dan take pictures of me while I breathed. “If you want to get back to the truck in three hours, we should head back now,” he said around 2 hours and 45 mins. “Nah, lets go all the way around the bay,” I replied. So we traveled on, me daydreaming about John B. Waldo and occasionally getting  transfixed by the Blue.
Suddenly Dan gave me the signal to stop. He looked confused and possibly a bit distraught. “This isn’t where our boat ramp is” he says. I looked to the shore. There were some kids and other kayaks, but no boat ramp like the one we used to put in. We had gone over 10 km at that point, so we should be there. We agreed to go around the next point to see what was there. Time passed and I have to admit, I liked that the excitement and confusion was causing me to swim longer than I intended. I had mapped out this route because it follows a trail around the lake. I knew if I got too cold or if something else happened I could get out, put on my warm clothes (packed in a dry bag on the boat) and walk back to the car. The combination of the excitement of being lost on the water with the lack of actual danger woke my water-lulled mind up a bit. So we swam around the point, to another bay. There was nothing in this bay at all and Dan was wanting to zip on ahead without me, around the next point and see if that was the one. By then the wind had really picked up and was blowing west to east, producing white caps and little waves. I knew I’d be frustratingly slow if I insisted on coming with him to scout the next point. We had gone 11.75 kms and I’d been in the water for 3 hours and 48 mins (personal record for me for this temp). With a sigh (and a shiver), I decided to hop out on the beach. I signaled to Dan who followed me in.
At least there were some lovely flowers there to provide some cheer…
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I started my post swim shivers almost immediately, but quickly warmed as I pulled off my suit and donned a knitted wool winter hat, a wool undershirt, and wool zip up shirt. Dan gave me his sweatshirt and wind shell to put on top of that. I also had an emergency blanket which I definitely didn’t need, but I recommend having for, well, emergencies.
Dan took off paddling for the point while I jogged along side him on the shoreline trail. As soon as I got to the point, I knew exactly where we were. “That’s Rhododendron Island!” I exclaimed pointing across the lake to the island we had circumnavigated hours earlier. He nodded and we knew we had overshot our goal by a kilometer or two.
Here is Dan as he paddled around the point just east of Rhododendron Island.
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Dan paddled the boat back, while I had a rather pleasant hike back to parking lot. I passed some campers who I imagine thought I was nuts for wearing a snow hat and four winter layers (it was at least 80 degrees out). I daydreamed more about John B. Waldo and his long range, conservationist planning. By the time I arrived back at the truck I was warm and happy.
We camped that night on a forest road and got bitten by swarms of mosquitos, despite them being mostly repelled by my picaridin-based spray. The next morning, we decided to do another swim-kayak excursion around the north end of the lake. Since we had traveled quite a ways the day before, we decided to make this a slow, fun swim. The water was a bit warmer because it was calm, like glass, and the sun was quickly warming the top inch or so. We could see the rocky bottom for quite awhile and Dan wondered how deep it was. The color of the bottom reflects back, so you don’t see the blue water until the bottom disappears. I dove straight down to see if I could swim down to it, but I couldn’t even get close, it was so deep.
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For the rest of the swim it was pure bliss gliding over the smooth, placid, blue water. We stopped frequently for photos and Dan even got in to swim a bit around the kayak. As he swam, I pulled my body half out onto the kayak–it was so warm! I carefully took photos from the water, with his phone in the not-all-that-waterproof case. Here is one of Dan in the kayak–you can see how calm the water was.
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Wow, what a trip. If you can, go pay a visit to Waldo Lake sometime soon. The best time is probably in August. Temperatures are warmer and hopefully there are fewer mosquitos. I know I’ll be back. Thanks for thinking ahead, John B. Waldo!

There’s Something About Lake Swimming

So far this summer has been going great. After END-WET all I wanted to do was swim. Pool swim, lake swim, lap swim, swim practice, it doesn’t really matter. I just want to be in the water, moving. My body has an itchy, restless feeling, antsy until I am once again in some kind of body of water, stroking along, the pressure of the water pushing against my arms. I’ve heard of post-event depression, but I think I have the opposite.

Further complicating my situation was the diagnosis of Giardia by an urgent care doctor just ten days after the race. For the record, I’m not saying that I got the Giardia from the Red River of the North. You can get it from anywhere. For all I know I got it from an airplane bathroom. In any case, a round of antibiotics, a strict, restrictive diet and temporary lactose intolerance quickly followed the diagnosis. Being sick and under-caloried, I should be feeling tired, run down and depressed. I’m not though. I am feeling exhilarated and alive. Move out of my way, Giardia, I am going to the lake.

Since END-WET, I have been lake bagging right and left–before work, after work, on weekdays and on the weekends. I can’t seem to get enough. There’s something about lake swimming. It invigorates me, makes me feel alive. Other people’s expectations, “that thing” you were worried about, time itself–these things get fuzzy. Whatever was bothering you is still there, but now so is the lake, the sun and the water and that makes you feel ok.

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There is another bizarre piece to this: a cold lake is more appealing than a warm one. This is bizarre because I hate to feel cold. And it is not so bizarre, because I don’t actually feel cold while swimming. Sure, at first there is the initial shock of the cold water, which makes you gasp a little and goosebumps pop up on your arms and legs. Then your skin feels cold and then eventually you don’t notice it anymore. Your mind feels clear and your heart feels warm. I mean that in more than just the poetic sense. Your skin is actually cooler and your heart is actually warmer as the blood flows out of your extremities and into your core to keep your organs safe and warm.

Now before I go any further–a moment of modesty. I’m not talking about actually cold water here. I’m talking about 60-62 degree (F) water, my new favorite temperature. People who actually get into cold water swimming get into the 50s, and then the 40s and then the (gasp) ummm– 30s. Wow. Now that is another thing entirely, I am sure. Those people are obviously crazy (I mean that in the highest regard) and I am not one of them.

The best part about a cold swim in a moderately cold lake is the warm up process. You get out of the water, run to your vehicle, get your suit off as quickly as possible and get dressed head to toe in all your winter weather gear. Other lake go-ers cast sideways glances at you as you shiver in that vehicle with the heat on full blast, sipping a hot beverage and talking to yourself (or whoever came with you to the lake). It is nice.

You say things like, “that was amazing!” and “what an amazing way to start/end/enjoy such a beautiful day”. If someone else is around, you conclude that they are the coolest person ever. If it’s just you, you forget that you ever even tried to be cool. Various grandiose thoughts and ideas come passing through your head. Adventure swims of every duration, distance and temperature cross your mind. You recall that time lost all shape and dimension when you were “out there”. It feels wonderful.

Since the onset of my summertime addiction to lake bagging, there have been too many lake swims to write a post about each. So I will summarize here:

Elk Lake is a favorite of most people around here. It is not uncommon to get there and run into other swimmers, their orange buoys bobbing in the often choppy water. Just this morning I saw three swimmers I had never met before. “Nice day for a swim,” I said. “Absolutely,” was the reply. Then we all got in and swam through the glassy waters. Or at the pool, you run into your friend, “oh you were there yesterday too? What time? Oh, we just missed each other”, and so on. There are several reasons for this lake’s popularity–speed limit for boats, in-your-face mountain views of South Sister, Broken Top and Mount Bachelor, easy to access day use beach and the site of the Cascade Lakes Swim series, hosted by our local masters group. Plus, it is only about 45 minutes from Bend, making it an obvious choice for an easy day trip, even before or after work.

Here’s a photo from one of the before work swims.

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You see what I mean. What the hell. Yes, we are so spoiled.

My post-work swim was at Suttle Lake. We didn’t intend to go all the way around the lake, but like I mentioned–time just gets away from you. Suttle lake is just 30 minutes or so from where I live, so it’s an even more obvious choice for an after-work swim for me, but probably not for people who actually live in Bend. There is a sweet view of Mount Washington from the middle of the lake (blocked by that hill in this photo) and it is warmer than Elk. I practiced my emergency climb-onto-kayak maneuvers after the swim, while Dan successfully avoided capsizing.

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Then there is East Lake–the smelliest lake you ever did smell. It’s not smelly from bad stuff though. It’s smelly because you are swimming inside the crater of a semi-active volcano. How cool is that? Dramatic cliffs line the north side of the lake and I enjoyed viewing them as I swam past during our recent trip there. It was chilly to say the least and I stayed in for two hours. My feet got a bit numb while swimming and I shivered more than usual afterwards. But the post-swim euphoria was all the more sweet. We sat on the patio of a cafe next to the water, while I ate the first burger I’d had in weeks (Giardia recovery diet). A couple of guys played and sang Simon and Garfunkel covers in perfect harmony. I drank a hot tea and watched the sunlight sparkle over the white-capped water. Children laughed and dogs slept lazily in the shade. 

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What’s next? More lakes, obviously! This weekend I am the kayak escort for a guy I haven’t met yet who is swimming in the Portland Bridge Swim. I’m excited about the opportunity to support someone else and view the race from the “comforts” of a boat. A lot of my friends are doing the race as well and I look forward to cheering them on. I plan to eat a lot of snacks while other people are racing hard. Then, next weekend I get my turn–a 10k race in Applegate Lake, a favorite for Oregon swimmers. More soon on how all of that plays out.